Challenger 2

The introduction into British army service of the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank (MBT) was originally intended to take a mere eighteen months from design to production, but in the event, it took something closer to ten years.

Why this was so is an important part of the Challenger 2 story, and although on the face of it this might seem to be a clear failure, it actually produced the most thoroughly tested and reliable tank ever to enter service with the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC). The tank has now been in service for twenty years and can be expected to form part of the British army's inventory – albeit in low numbers – until around 2035, which would make it the longest-serving frontline battle tank ever used by the UK.
In late 1966 the first half dozen of a new MBT, the Chieftain, had finally entered service. This was an evolutionary design, but in effect it attempted to put the armour protection and firepower of the heavy Conqueror tank onto the mobility of the existing MBT, the Centurion. Although it was exceptionally well protected through the use of rolled homogenous armour and its 120mm gun was without doubt the best tank gun of its day, the Chieftain was plagued by indifferent mobility and in particular by problems with its engine and gearbox; fixing these took decades and it was not until around twenty years after in entered service that the reliability was anywhere near that originally envisaged. By this stage, in the late 1970s, it was clear that Chieftain was falling behind when compared to the latest generation of Soviet MBTs, and that a new MBT was urgently required; Chieftain had received various upgrades to its fire control system, including the introduction of a laser rangefinder followed by the Improved Fire Control System (IFCS), as well as ammunition and armour protection improvements, but in essence was still using a gun system designed in the 1950s and was less than impressive at engaging moving targets or shooting on the move. Although not a fair comparison of a tank's full range of capabilities, the NATO annual Canadian Armour Trophy gunnery competition was all-but impossible to win in Chieftain, and totally impossible once M1 and Leopard 2 entered service.

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In mid-1980 the British government announced that it was going to order 243 Challenger MBT1, to replace part of its ageing Chieftain fleet. This came about solely because the new Iranian revolutionary regime had cancelled an order for British-designed and built Shir 2 tanks, on which the Challenger was based. At the same time development on a new British tank, MBT 80 was halted and the only option left to the MOD was to base a new tank on the Iranian tank, which was in many ways advanced, particularly in mobility and armour protection. But this left the RAC in the unenviable position of running a mixed fleet of MBT. True, the new tank was a great improvement over its predecessor in terms of armour (using the new Chobham system), mobility and to some extent reliability, but it was not what the senior officers wanted, as the gun and fire control was to all intents and purposes the same as that on later marks of Chieftain, with the same limitations. The new tank entered service in March 1983, and eventually, more and more Chieftains were replaced by Challengers; by 1990 a total of 426 Challengers were in service, the majority in seven Challenger regiments (all in Germany) compared to six regiments of Chieftain. However, Chieftain, with nearly 650 tanks still in service, remained the primary tank in terms of quantity.
Whilst this was going on assessments were constantly being made of the rapidly increasing Soviet armour threat. The old stories of the USSR relying on masses of poor quality tanks were no longer true, and increasingly the Russians were fielding much improved tanks, with impressive 125 mm main guns, better mobility, and still in large quantities. The nightmare case of NATO having to face quantity and quality was being realised. Britain needed a new tank, and not just more Challengers.

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